Not yet forty, Katherine Lorenz has been active in the social sector since her early twenties, most notably as co-founder of Puente a la Salud Comunitaria, a nonprofit organization working to advance food sovereignty in rural Oaxaca, Mexico. For most of her career, Lorenz thought of herself as a grantseeker rather than as the person who would end up heading the family foundation established by her grandfather, George Mitchell, a Texas wildcatter who amassed a fortune in the natural gas industry and pioneered the use of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") to extract gas from shale. However, a stint as deputy director of the Institute for Philanthropy, which works to increase effective philanthropy in the U.K. and internationally, convinced her that her nonprofit experience could be valuable to the Texas-based foundation, which seeks to identify and support innovative, sustainable solutions for a range of human and environmental problems. Elected president of the foundation in 2011 and named "One to Watch" by Forbes in 2012, Lorenz has become a respected speaker on topics related to environmental sustainability, NextGen philanthropy, and nonprofit leadership and has helped guide the foundation's emergence on the national stage as it waits for a final, significant infusion of funds from her grandfather's estate.
Philanthropy News Digest spoke recently with Lorenz about the foundation's ongoing strategic planning process and its ambitions going forward.
Philanthropy News Digest: You've carved out an interesting career in the social sector. Are you at all surprised to find yourself leading your late grandfather's foundation?
Katherine Lorenz: Yes and no. I never really envisioned that I would work on the grantmaking side. Working in the field, in rural communities in Latin America, was my first professional love. I really enjoyed the work I did with a group called Amigos de las Americas and then in founding Puente a la Salud Comunitaria and leading that for six years in Oaxaca, Mexico. I really believed that was my passion and that I would always stay connected to the grantseeking, implementation side. A few people asked if I saw myself going on to work in the foundation at some point; my answer was always no.
But several things happened: the primary one was that I went through the Philanthropy Workshop and had an "a-ha" moment, thinking about where can I have the most impact with my time and the work I do. It became clear while I was working on the grantseeking side how good donors who are well-informed can have a much bigger impact than people who are just writing checks. There's nothing wrong with providing funding, but I learned to recognize how great it was to work with good donors and how difficult it was to work with not-as-good donors, which helped me recognize the power of being a really smart, thoughtful, informed donor.
PND: How would you distinguish a good donor from a bad donor?
KL: I hate to use the term "bad donor" because I think all donors are really driven to have an impact, and for the most part they're not doing harm. There are some cases where, completely inadvertently, good intentions lead to significant problems. Something that might seem like a simple solution could have much larger — and negative — implications. For example, disaster relief that ends up destroying local markets. Then there are donors who are difficult to work with.
I think a lot of donors feel that, to be a "responsible donor," they need to be strict with their grantees, making sure that only a certain amount goes to overhead. Or maybe they won’t fund administrative costs or salaries and will only fund direct program costs, or require some additional type of reporting that’s unique to them to make sure they’re getting the impact they want to see. What I’ve found is that by trying to be a responsible donor, it sometimes makes receiving a grant much more difficult. I told one donor that we would rather not take their money than have to do what they were asking, because what they were asking would cost more than they were willing to give us. I think that's a common trait of a donor who is looking to be "good."
One of my pet peeves is the overhead conversation. When I was applying for and receiving grants, I felt it was very clear to me, as the organization's executive director, where we needed support and where we didn’t. We did everything on a shoestring. We couldn’t have a computer for all our employees, or our computers were so old they didn't work, or we couldn’t pay to have the right software to run the accounting systems we needed. Even office space or an additional car — really basic things — all count as overhead. But none of it was wasteful, it was necessary. We couldn't do our work in the field without those things.
One area I felt was particularly important that no one wanted to fund was strategic planning. To achieve the most impact it can, an organization needs a strategic plan. But that's investing in the institution and overhead, which many of our donors were not interested in funding. So, when a donor would come to me and ask, "What do you want to do that no one will fund?" — which was not often — that was so helpful. Whereas, a different donor might say, "In addition to tracking that annually, we want you to track this other thing over here every six months, and money should only go to programs." Both would think they were doing a good job, but the difference in dealing with those types of donors, in terms of helping us pursue our mission, was night and day.
PND: The Mitchell Foundation is still waiting for your grandfather's estate to be settled and for the bulk of his fortune to be transferred to it. How are you planning for the future?
KL: In 1993, my aunt and uncle sat down with my grandparents and had a conversation about what they wanted for the foundation. Throughout the 2000s, we had a series of conversations on video and audiotapes, and toward the end of my grandfather's life I sat down with him quite a lot, so we have some twenty years of recorded conversations specifically about their dreams for the foundation.
My grandfather always talked about sustainability being the key area on which he wanted the foundation to focus. He would often say, "If you can’t make the world work with five billion people, how are you going to make it work with ten billion people?"
Our planning is about taking these big visions and ideas that my grandparents were very clear about and moving them into programming that is concrete and can be implemented, with clear outcomes and goals attached to them. Once a year the family gets together, and we spend two to three days learning about the issues we want to have an impact on. It helps us get up to speed in terms of what we’re talking about and enables us to make educated decisions.
Everyone in the family over the age of eighteen, including spouses, is invited to participate and learn along with us. Then, working with different committees that drill down into each program area to shape a vision for the future and help get us toward concrete goals and objectives, we start making strategic decisions. We held the first of these conferences in 2007 and started to roll out some programs in 2008 based on that work. We continue to hold these retreats and continue to roll out new programs — and will continue to do so with several new programs in the coming years. We're also working to build the capacity of the institution and develop the policies and procedures and organizational structures needed to operate functionally and professionally as we scale up our activities.
PND: So what does George Mitchell's vision of a sustainable world look like, and is it achievable?
KL: He wasn't prescriptive about that — in part because he didn't know what critical issues in the future might be, but also because the solutions to our current challenges weren't clear. He had his ideas about what needed to happen around land use and population, for example, but they were part of a broader way of thinking systematically about sustainability in everything we do. He believed you should always have the economic, the social, and the environmental — the three pillars, as he liked to say — working together in harmony in every decision you make.
PND: Approximately 95 percent of the land in Texas is privately held, and large swaths of wildlife habitat in the state have been lost to development, posing significant challenges to the state's human and non-human inhabitants. What is the foundation doing — or planning to do — to address unchecked development in Texas and the Southwest more generally?
KL: That's one of the areas where we are working to create strategies. This is about how people manage their land and how you help people manage their land sustainably — determining, for example, whether to apply conservation easements to a particularly valuable piece of land or just hold on to it and keep it from being developed. Land that has been held by a family for generations can be broken up very quickly when a parent dies and the family can't afford to keep it.
The foundation itself owns fifty-six hundred acres in the Piney Woods of East Texas, and we’ve restored all that land to pre-settlement conditions — what it was like before humans inhabited it — and reintroduced species that were native to it. And we hope to be able to teach other landowners in the state and region how to do the same thing with their land. We’re not exactly certain what that strategy will look like, but we are working with the private sector, talking to corporations, and looking to partner with universities and other big institutions that own large tracts of undeveloped land to share best practices on how the land can be sustainably preserved.
— Matt Sinclair